Sex Ed in the United States is Scary

Despite sex education in general being controversial, most people support sex education when it is applied in a comprehensive fashion. Comprehensive sex education is driven by medical and scientific evidence to facilitate the development of sexually healthy people. It has tremendous benefits for a person’s psychological and physical well-being. For example, comprehensive sex education is associated with lower rates of unprotected sex, sexually-transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual assaults.

Despite majority opinion, logic, experts, and data being on the side of comprehensive sex education, sex education in the United States is rarely applied in this fashion. Instead, sex education in the US is mostly applied in an abstinence-based fashion. Driven by ideologies and beliefs instead of medical and scientific evidence, abstinence-based sex education is highly moralistic and judgmental; and attempts to make people abstain from sexual activity.

Not surprisingly, abstinence-based sex education has as many detriments for a person’s psychological and physical well-being as comprehensive sex education has benefits. Abstinence-based sex education is associated with higher rates of sexual promiscuity, sexually-transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, single parenthood, high school and college in-completion, domestic and family violence, sexual assault, and poverty.

Welcome to sex education in America, where children and adolescents are more likely to suffer the detriments of sex education than realize its benefits.

Education

You may want to stop reading now. Seriously, the rest of this paper is about how sex education is applied in the US today — and it is scary. For comparison sake, this paper will also describe how math is being applied in Kindergarten through 12th grade. The comparisons between how these two topics are being taught will make you forever wonder why you learned so much about math in school and so little about sex.

At its core, education is about learning important things. Whether some “thing” is important enough to be in education is based on the benefits of learning the thing and the costs of not learning it.

For example, here are three potential benefits for a person who is sexually educated: strong self-identity, authentic relationships, and life satisfaction; and here are three potential benefits for a person who is educated in math: they can be an engineer, know how to use a calculator, and count the number of toes they have.

Conversely, here are three potential costs for a person not being educated about sex: depression, poverty, and sexual assault; and here are three potential costs for a person not being educated about math: an overdrawn checking account, not being able to calculate a variable mortgage rate, and confused about the number of toes they have.

After being made aware of just these few significant benefits and costs of being (un)educated about sex and math, you may be saying, “I am sure the US is doing a great job at teaching K-12 students about sex and math…”

You Are Not Going to Believe Me

Most of the ways the topic of sex is taught in the US you are not going to believe. So, let me be clear in sharing the sources of information I used to find these ways: The National Conference of State Legislatures and The Guttmacher Institute. You will find links to these reputable sources in the References’ section immediately following this paper.

As for the ways math is being taught today, I doubt you will question them, but to be equally transparent, I used the Common Core States Initiative as my main source. You will find a link to the Common Core States Initiative in the References’ section.

Six Ways Sex and Math are being Taught to K-12 Students in the US Today

1. Integral Parts of Education

Based on their potential educational benefits, you would expect the topics of sex and math to be integral parts of K-12 curriculums.

But in reality, only 29 states require sex education to be taught at some point during K-12 grades, while all 50 states require math to be taught at some point during K-12 grades.

Twenty-one states do not require sex education to be taught and those states that do require sex education, it is only required in 5th or 6th grade and 10th or 11th grade as a single-topic within a health class, while every state of the union requires math to be taught from K through at least 10th grade.

2. Truth is Defined by Logic, Evidence, and Science

You would expect, when the topics of sex and math are taught in school, their teachings are based on scientific evidence.

But in reality, only 22 states require the content covered in sex education classes to be based on scientific evidence, while all 50 states require the content covered in math classes to be based on scientific evidence.

Twenty-eight states’ sex education programs can be based on opinion and conjecture alone. Imagine if educational systems did this for math…

Little Johnny comes home from school spouting off “2+3 equals 4!” His school recognizes his addition is not scientifically accurate but believes this math is morally righteous.

How well do you think little Johnny is going to be operating outside the classroom — with these moral math skills — in the real world?

Little Johnny showing off his “moral math skills.”

3. Critical Information Cannot be Withheld

You would expect critical information about sex and math could not be withheld from the learning process when these topics are being taught.

But in reality, 29 states require abstinence-based sex education, while no states require math teachers to teach their students to “not do math.”

Ironically, high school abstinence-based sex education programs are most likely teaching about not having sex to students who are having sex. More than 50% of teenagers have sex before high school graduation. Furthering this irony, often these sex education programs are abstinence-only-until-marriage programs which guilt and shame students into believing, no one should engage in sexual activities until heterosexual marriage. This philosophy flies in the face of basic human behavior and physiology. Specifically, with the average age of marriage being 28 years, less than 10% of people are virgins at time of marriage; and sex, like eating, drinking, defecating, and urinating, is a fundamental human drive.

4. Fundamental Aspects of Topics are Included

Only 20 states require discussions about contraception be included in sex education, while all 50 states require discussions about numbers be included when teaching math.

Talking about sex without talking about contraception is like talking about math without talking about numbers. You can do it, but you sure will be confusing.

The primary reason people engage in sex is for pleasure and one of the top fears people have during sex is getting pregnant; therefore, for most people, knowing how to properly use the tools of contraception is fundamental for any discussions about sex.

Top Ten Reasons Why People Have Sex
Top Ten Fears People Have About Sex

5. Why is a Topic Important?

Only 11 states require discussions about sexual orientation to be included in sex education, while all 50 states require addition to be a part of the K-12 math curriculum.

Thirty-nine states can have sex-education programs that never address sexual orientation. How can human sexuality be taught without talking about what drives sexuality: attraction, pleasure, liking, loving, and intimacy? This would be like teaching math without talking about addition — again you could do it, but you sure would be confusing.

6. Positive Information about Topics are Included

Only 31 states require information on healthy relationships be included in sex education classes, while all 50 states require information about the benefits of being math literate be included in math classes.

As a human sexuality professor, one of the most frequent questions students ask me is: Why is sex taboo? My answer: Sex is not taboo. Repeat, sex is not taboo. We are not born to feel guilt and shame and fear of our own pleasure. We are taught this. We are made to believe sex is taboo by being taught it is dirty and dangerous and sinful, without being taught sex is natural and healthy and empowering. You can make believe anything is taboo, even the most basic physiologically satisfying instinct humans have; welcome to the results of abstinence-based sex education.

The Solution is Not a Secret

The obvious conclusion from these six comparisons: Generally speaking, the ways math is being taught benefits K-12 students; whereas, the ways sex is being taught hurts K-12 students. It is no wonder we see the costs of sexual illiteracy in the US, through depression, anxiety, sexual abuse, teenage and unwanted pregnancy, family violence, domestic violence, rape, and poverty. Granted, the items on this list have a variety of causes, but one of their causes is clear: a lack of comprehensive sex education.

model 1: abstinence-based sex education is a part of a vicious cycle of societal ills

As model 1 shows, abstinence-based sex education is a part of a vicious cycle causing increasing teenage and unwanted pregnancy rates; teenage and unwanted pregnancies are associated with increasing high school dropout, college in-completion, single-parenthood, and early-marriage rates; high school dropout, college in-completion, single-parenthood, and early marriages are associated with increasing poverty rates; and poverty is associated with increasing rates of incest, family violence, domestic violence, rape, murder, and suicide — which in turn are predictive of teenage and unwanted pregnancies, and the cycle begins again…

At first glance, this vicious and unending cycle of societal ills appears impossible to solve. But if one looks just a bit closer, a solution becomes apparent. Model 2 shows what happens to this cycle when abstinence-based sex education is replaced with comprehensive sex education. This single change reduces teenage and unwanted pregnancies by 50%; high school completion rates nearly double and college completion rates increase by more than six times; people wait longer to have children and get married — and their marriages are significantly more likely to last till death do they part. Poverty becomes near non-existent and its ancillaries are reduced to near undetectable rates.

model 2: comprehensive sex education breaks a vicious cycle of societal ills

This solution is no secret. Having funded many of the research studies on comprehensive sex education, the US Federal Government is quite aware of the positive effects of comprehensive sex education. Which leads to the question, why is the federal government not openly supportive of comprehensive sex education? It is hard to imagine the federal government ignoring any program empirically shown to decrease rates of violence and rape; increase rates of mental and physical health; and save money and lives. Certainly, this cannot be true, but by denying comprehensive sex education programs, the federal government is leaving people within inter-generational cycles of poverty, sickness, violence, and early death.

References

Abma, J.C., Martinez, G.M. (2017). Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teenagers in the United States, 2011–2015. National Health Statistics Report, 104,1–23. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr104.pdf

Atkins, R., Sulik, M. J., Hart, D., Ayres, C., & Read, N. (2012). The effects of school poverty on adolescents’ sexual health knowledge. Research in Nursing & Health, 35, 231–241.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3348397/#!po=32.1429

Busaidy, A. (November 26, 2012). A Lack of Education Leaves Children Vulnerable to Abuse. The National.

https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/a-lack-of-education-leaves-children-vulnerable-to-abuse-1.402470

Common Core State Standards Initiative, Mathematics Standards. http://www.corestandards.org/Math/

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen and Bernadette D. Proctor, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014 U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Reports P60–252, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2015.

Ethier, K. A, Kann, L., & McManus, T. (2018). Sexual Intercourse Among High School Students — 29 States and United States Overall, 2005–2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 66, 1393–1397. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm665152a1.htm

Finer, L. B. (2007). Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954–2003. Public Health Reports, 122, 73–78.

Fontaine, M. (January 24, 2013). America has an Incest Problem. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/america-has-an-incest-problem/272459/

Guttmacher Institute (August 2020). Sex and HIV Education. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education

Kerr, W. C., Kaplan, M. S., Huguet, N., Caetano, R., Giesbrecht, N., & McFarland, B. H. (2017). Economic Recession, Alcohol, and Suicide Rates: Comparative Effects of Poverty, Foreclosure, and Job Loss. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 52, 469–475. https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(16)30461-5/pdf

Malack, C. (June 12, 2017). American Sex Education and Adolescent Girls’ Mental Health, Blasting News.

https://us.blastingnews.com/opinion/2017/06/american-sex-education-and-adolescent-girls-mental-health-001765281.html

Meston, C. M., & Buss, D. M. (2007). Why Humans Have Sex. Archives of Sex Behavior, 36, 477–507.

Moloney, A. (May 2, 2016). Incest, Lack of Sex Education Drive Teen Pregnancies in El Salvador, Reuters.

https://www.reuters.com/article/el-salvador-teens-pregnancy/incest-lack-of-sex-education-drive-teen-pregnancies-in-el-salvador-idINKCN0XT1TI

Murphy, R. (September 1, 2017). Self Esteem, Health and Comprehensive Sex Education. ExpatHealth.org https://expathealth.org/features/self-esteem-health-and-comprehensive-sex-education/

Mwesigye, P. (June 22, 2015). Poverty, Gender Violence and Lack of Access to Sexuality Education fueling child marriages and teenage pregnancies in Kampala Slums. Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum. https://patrickmwesigye.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/poverty-gender-violence-and-lack-of-access-to-sexuality-education-fueling-child-marriages-and-teenage-pregnancies-in-kampala-slums/

National Conference of State Legislatures (June 2013). Postcard: Teen Pregnancy Affects Graduation Rates.

http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/teen-pregnancy-affects-graduation-rates-postcard.aspx

National Conference of State Legislatures (April 2020). State Policies on Sex Education in Schools. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx

Perez, D. (January 15, 2016). Sex Ed Reduces Poverty, Homelessness. The Daily Courier.

Dr. Don Lucas, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and head of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. He loves psychology, teaching, and research.

If you like this story, then check out Don’s videos on his YouTube channel, 5MIweekly: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQFQ0vPPNPS-LYhlbKOzpFw/featured, follow him on Instagram @5MIweekly, like him on Facebook: http://fb.me/5MIWeekly, and check out his website: http://5Miweekly.com

I am a Professor of Psychology at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. My research focus is human sexuality. I also host a YouTube channel, 5MIweekly.

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